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Conference coverage: opening plenary

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“We have no plans to be nice.”

Breanna Draxler

Saturday’s events kicked off with a morning plenary dubbed “A Step Toward Solutions.” In an auditorium in building 6-120 on the MIT campus, about 75 seats were filled. Most were women, with a few men interspersed. When the session kicked off at 8:45, the sugar-filled pastries apparently hadn’t kicked in yet. The atmosphere was one of pre-coffee calm.

This summit at large was in response to a standing-room-only session at the Science Writers 2013 conference in Gainesville, Fla. last November, in which gender disparities in science writing were made visible. Women, the panel showed, were coming up against unexpected barriers and not accomplishing the things one would expect in today’s age of apparent female empowerment. It’s one thing to make that kind of a statement based on anecdotal experiences, but in the months since the session, two graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a private survey for the conference to see how the data aligned with the anecdotes.

Deborah Blum, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, began the 2014 summit with a general lay of the land thanks to the number-crunching of two of her graduate students: Karen Hess and Aparna Vidyasagar. The first PowerPoint slides projected promising results onto the screen: In science writing programs at schools across the country, there were far more women than men pursuing degrees in science writing in recent years. There’s no lack of interest or motivation to get into the field, then. The real question is what the field has for them when they leave the academic setting, Blum said.

From here, the graphs appeared to be less and less in women’s favor: The number of bylines in the U.S.’s top ten newspapers? 37 percent. The number of staffers in U.S. newsrooms in the past decade and a half? Again, 37 percent. Slide after slide quantified the disparity between men and women in science journalism.

And it wasn’t just in the newsroom. The discrepancies were just as apparent, if not more so, on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. In an analysis of science stories that ran in The New York Times in January and February of 2013, writers sought out 5 female sources, compared to 21 male. That meant readers heard a male voice as the scientific expert four times as often.

“It’s with that background that we wanted to then go out to the community and ask, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Blum said.

Emily Willingham, science writer and summit organizer, then took the mic to discuss the results of a recent survey, whose aim was to gain an understanding of the attitudes, the experiences and the role of gender among science writers. The results she shared came from 422 U.S.-based science journalists, contacted through three science writing professional organizations: The National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). The results weren’t peer-reviewed, Willingham pointed out, but they were telling.

Hess, one of the grad students who had analyzed the survey the data, said, “As a brand new science writer, I didn’t realize these issues existed to the extend that they do.” For example, 129 women had taken a mid-career break. Only 18 men had done so. But both groups said doing so had a negative impact on their work. “They became mothers?” Willingham asked with feigned surprise. “The horror.” Science journalists are also an attractive bunch, Willingham joked, because men and women both said that their appearance helped them at work.

Approximately 54 percent of female respondents and 44 percent of males reported gender bias in science writing. But the survey illuminated the fact that it was the women who were on the receiving end of the vast majority of that discrimination. Some 57 percent of women said they weren’t taken seriously at work, whereas only 5 percent of men had experienced such a thing. And 45 percent of women said they hadn’t been credited for their ideas at some point; a mere 6 percent of men reported the same. Flirtation or sexual remarks affected 45 percent of women and 18 percent of men.

Here Seth Mnookin, co-director of MIT’s graduate program in science writing and one of the summit’s hosts, chimed in. “Was anyone surprised by the results?” he asked. The general consensus: “Not at all.”

“I thought it was encouraging that so many men identified it as a problem,” said Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. But, as Willingham pointed out, “We only hear from men who give a shit.” Selection bias was apparent in the survey on many fronts. The men who took the time to fill it out were more likely to care about the issue in the first place. And the respondents weren’t particularly diverse. Three quarters of the respondents were women; a whopping 86 percent were white.

But that doesn’t discount the validity of respondents’ experiences, or the trends that they collectively showed, like the fact that far more male and female respondents reported being harassed by a subordinate than a supervisor or even a peer. For women, it was 58 percent of those who reported harassment and for men it was 41 percent. “I’m not surprised by much these days, but I’m surprised by how much harassment came from subordinates,” said Patricia Thomas, director of health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia. “Who are these people? What are they thinking?”

“We have not done ourselves favors by being really nice and quiet and polite about all these events,” said Blum. “I bitched to my friends but I didn’t make a noise. By having this meeting we’re saying ‘Yes, this is a real problem and issue for all of us.’ The more we talk about it in a public sense the more of a chance we have of changing it.”

Aschwanden, another of the panelists and a Colorado-based freelancer, weighed in: “This is the environment in which I’ve lived my whole career. Most of the things I’ve faced have not really been overt.” But Aschwanden says the frustrating nature of the situation motivates her to do something about it. “We need men on our side. Most men want to do something to help. This is not just a women’s issue.”

The other panelists agreed that awareness was paramount, including Mnookin, who said he was hugely embarrassed by the fact that he hadn’t seen the gender discrimination before. “It was going on around me and with my students and I was so oblivious.”

Aschwanden said that the first step was simply recognizing that it’s a problem. “You’re not waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘How am I going to oppress women today’?” It’s easy for the people who aren’t affected by it on a daily basis to go about their days without realizing it’s happening, she said.

“You do have to be able to stand up and say I’m better than that and I deserve to be treated better than that,” Blum said. Willingham took it a step further: “Not just to the people around you, we have to say that ourselves, too.”

There was no shortage of data or enthusiasm in the room to support these ideas, but when it came to methods or actions for changing this status quo, there was no agreed-upon way to go about it. When the conversation was opened up to audience members, things started heating up.

Some said that women in science writing need to support each other. Especially freelancers who do not have the institutional support and the avenues to express grievances. But another pointed out that, according to the data, women often aren’t the ones doing the hiring. They don’t have the ability to create the necessary opportunities. It’s the people in power that need to know about these things.

As the session was winding down, one final audience member wanted to make sure she was heard: “This is a mean problem in mean industries and it’s time to start fighting back,” she said. “You should send [the results of the survey] to every fucking editor of every publication in the country. They should know that you know. Make a big ugly fuss about it. That’s the only way you’re going to get any place. You’re not going to get anywhere by being nice.”

Willingham’s response was brief but pointed: “We have no plans to be nice.”

And with that, the weekend of solution-seeking discussions began. The auditorium by this point was vibrating with action-focused energy. Even after attendees had filed out of the auditorium, they expressed strong reactions to the panel.

Shannon Palus, a freelance science journalist based in Philadelphia said, “I felt such a feeling of relief.” She described how when she tried to have these same conversations about gender bias in her undergraduate physics department she met intense resistance. She would question whether the disparities and discrimination were all in her head, and ask herself: “Is this really happening? Is this really a problem?” Her feelings after the plenary were very different; she said she felt grateful, relieved and validated that the discrimination of female science writers was finally publically recognized as a problem.

Veronica Hackethal, a health writer based in New York City, said, “Part of me is like, ‘I just want to do my work. I don’t want to talk about this,’ ” she said. “But you have to deal with this stuff, otherwise you can’t do your work.”

Rebecca Guenard, a Philadelphia-based freelancer, said she was surprised by the state of the science-writing field. When she saw the survey findings, she said, “Dear god, are we still here?” She continued, “We have a tendency to assume that bringing [gender bias] to the spotlight will take care of it. But there are things we can do. It’s B.S. and I’m not going to stand for it.”

The takeaway from the panel seemed to be this: Gender bias is deeply ingrained in us. Not just in science writing circles but in our society as a whole. In order to make any kind of meaningful change, there has to be a cultural shift. There has to be action items that will move the conversation forward. And that’s just what the remainder of the summit aimed to do.

Conference coverage: Opinion, diversity and harassment sessions

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Are women caught more often at the intersection of diversity and power?

by Shannon Palus

A large number of women are entering the world of science journalism in America, and a survey conducted by two University of Wisconsin Madison students shows that the overwhelming majority of students in master’s science writing programs are female.

But like many spaces, it remains a male-dominated one: only 38% of science articles are written by women. At the tops of the major science magazine mastheads, men outnumber women 2-to-1. Women are featured less in anthologies. Women are cited far less as sources. And nearly 40% report having been harassed. Add to this the anecdotes of last fall, in which an editor at Scientific American stepped down admist several reports involving harassment. There is a clear problem. A largely female section of the science writing community gathered for two days in Boston to discuss it, at the first Science Writing Solutions Summit.

Harassment happens at the intersection of diversity and power. Diversity, specialist Gwen Cochran Hadden tells us in a morning Saturday session, is more than just about maleness and femaleness, black and white. We are diverse in the way we talk, the way we great co-workers versus friends, the way we smile, or don’t, in job interviews, the way we dress. Some of us are “high context”: We are used to interacting with lots of people; others are “low context,” preferring to work alone. What some of us find rude — perhaps, a coworker failing to make eye contact in the hall — others might find normal. How we conduct ourselves varies across generations and regions. Hadden encouraged us to keep gender out of it, but women, it seems to me, are held to a higher standard of being “high context” and “nice.”

“Everybody is different in some way,” says Hadden.  “So look inside yourself, and ask yourself the question, and say “different from what?’”

The answer became clear to me in the second session of the day: We are different from someone called the “reasonable person.”

“Very few people get up planning to harass,” explained harassment specialist Debora Bloom. Instead, harassment is the product of miscommunication, misaligned expectations — a diversity in how we expect to interact with the world. Thus, the line between harassment and not is fuzzy. It varies by city (what is appropriate office artwork in New York City might be scandalous in Mormon Utah), by age, by race, by gender. The question to ask is, “Would a reasonable person, in the context, consider this bad behavior?”

If we take Hadden’s assessment that we interact with each other in the world in a diversity of ways, then where on the map of interacting do we place Bloom’s “reasonable person”?

A famous math mathematician spent our conversation staring at my chest. An amateur comedian at the undergrad department talent show tells jokes about getting head. Someone at work calls me “sweetheart.”

In each of theses cases, and many others, I tame my reaction with the same mantra: Be reasonable. In each case that I decide to speak up, the assessment of my ability to “be reasonable” is often-to-invariably met with the same verdict: “You’re not.”

The “reasonable” sort of person is one with privilege. He is someone who does not have to worry about whether threatening remarks on the internet are empty; the sort of person who does not grow up being characterized by his body, told that his chest or lack thereof might say something deeply personal about him. A woman shares her story of being 25 and having a male colleague send an invitation to model for a foot fetish website. Privilege is being able to register that as a reasonably funny joke.

In our own community, according to the University of Wisconsin survey, “overall, men and women agreed on what [kinds of] behavior is inappropriate.” Yet, the survey comments reveal a “gray area”: “It depends,” responded a female in her 50s. “Context is key,” noted a man of the same age.

There are lots of women in science writing, as evidenced by the survey numbers and hundred or so that came to the conference. But our context, our location, is still “boys club.” I’m willing to bet that most of the Summit attendees know this. It’s something that everyone else should be vigilant about, too.

Conference coverage: Mentoring session

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Ask, and you shall receive a mentor

By Emily Litvack

I settle into my seat in a lecture hall at MIT’s George Eastman Research Laboratories, take nervous sips from a styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee, and wonder what mentorship has to with gender inequity. As I scan the room, I see the faces of science writers whose careers I’ve admired and followed for years.Who am I to be spending a weekend with the likes of Maryn McKenna and Deborah Blum?

I’m a 20-something undergraduate in microbiology and journalism at Northern Arizona University. And while the Intro to Journalism class I took freshman year did feature an entire unit on Twitter usage, until this weekend, I mostly tweeted about the merits of brunch and bad ecology puns. I feel really, extraordinarily silly sitting in a room full of people who get paid to write about science and who effectively know how to use #SciWriSum14.

I turned to one of my new friends and said, “Being around all these people makes me feel pretty inadequate.”

With a laugh she replied, “Prepare to feel that way for the rest of your career.”

When panelist Apoorva Mandavilli, executive editor of SFARI, says “Anybody here who has any success has been helped,” it hits me.

This is why we’re talking about mentorship at the Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit. If I stand any real chance at success in science writing, I have to ask for mentorship, and then I have to receive it.

Panelists Mandavilli, Slate Science and Health Editor Laura Helmuth, and Science Writer Gwen “Bug Girl” Pearson convinced me that addressing gender inequity in this field is equal parts an individual and collective effort.

Each agreed that women often feel that by asking for mentoring, they are being a bother.

“You are not bothering anybody,” says Mandavilli, “You should not be afraid to ask.”

Shara Yurkiewicz, recent graduate of Harvard Medical School and writer at MedPage Today, says, “I feel as though I am already fairly aggressive in contacting people to ask questions. It was nice to hear all three of the panelists not only validate that this was okay, but encourage it.”

Alright, I thought. Easy enough. I’ll ask for help, but am I going to get it?

Helmuth, in arguably one of the most unforgettable moments of the Sci Wri Sum, referenced a study wherein researchers found that more than 6,500 professors at 259 American universities were less likely to mentor female and minority students. Mock email requests for mentorship were sent using female names, like Meredith Roberts, ethnic names like Deepak Patel, and a white guy name: Brad Anderson. Brad Anderson received the most responses.

“Everybody loves Brad Fucking Anderson,” says Helmuth. She adds, “The Brad Andersons of the world feel entitled to seek out mentors” and that women and minorities should, too. Brad Anderson wonderfully illustrates the duality of the problem. That is, we female and minority mentees need to feel entitled to ask, and our prospective mentors need to respond.

If the panelists’ first point of discussion was the ask-receive dynamic of mentorship, the second was probably that after receiving a mentor, I have to cultivate that relationship somehow, but they and attendees had a range of approaches to this.

Bug Girl and Helmuth agreed that good mentors are cognizant of the power differential. Bug Girl, reflecting on past mentors, says, “They always believed in me. They always told me ‘You can do this.’ They didn’t try to make me a mini-me; they gave me the space to make my own decisions.”

Helmuth warns against being “overbearing,” noting that mentors should listen and “shoot darts of praise” to mentees.

Hilda Bastian, scientist at the National Institutes of Health and Scientific American blogger, “[…]thought the panel was really good for somebody just starting out and learning the ropes, but there were a lot of blanket statements I don’t necessarily agree with.” She asks, “How do you really change the culture of a profession? This [mentoring] is what people are doing now, and it isn’t solving the problem; it only maintains the status quo.”

Bastian feels sending emails to and going for the occasional coffee with a “fairy godmother” listener-figure isn’t enough to bring women and minorities to the top of the field: “If someone is going to put in extra effort for you, your work has to really stand out,” she says, “And for people who are not Brad Anderson, people who face real obstacles, you need more than a person who just listens and encourages you. They have to be critical, and invested in you.”

By the end of the panel, I realized that there may not be a single, definitive answer to the question “How do I become editor-in-chief of Science by working on mentorships?” (Darn). But, I did send an email to a past environmental journalism professor of mine and asked him for advice on how to write about a mentoring panel. He replied. Ask, and you shall receive a mentor.

Conference coverage: The sexual harassment sessions

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by Chelsey Coombs

The weekend of June 14 and 15 in Cambridge, MA, members of the science writing community came together at the Women In Science Writing Solutions Summit to discuss how to go about achieving gender equity and eliminating sexual harassment within the field. Consultant Debora Bloom led the session “Sexual Harrassment: Recognizing and Addressing It,” and gave some helpful advice on what to do when one is harassed in an office environment, but ultimately left freelancers feeling unaccounted for.

Bloom began her session by asking the audience, “How many of you have experienced what you would call harassment?”

Many in the crowded room raised their hands.

This echoed the data compiled in a survey of science writers by Karen Hess and Aparna Vidyasagar, two graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Out of the 315 women and 96 men who were included in the analysis, 37.5 percent of women in the survey said they had been harassed, while 8.3 percent of men said they had been harassed.

“There is a question about what the difference is between harassment and inappropriate behavior. There is no exact line; it’s a fuzzy line,” Bloom said.

This statement, too, was mirrored by Hess and Vidyasagar’s data; although many of the 422 respondents agreed that “sexual advances” constitute sexual harassment (93.8 percent of women and 91.9 percent of men), a lack of context kept made it difficult for many to decide whether physical contact, jokes, remarks and personal stories could be characterized as harassment.

During the session, Bloom gave attendees a series of seven broad situations that had to do with various harassment issues; attendees then had to decide whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement. For example, “Whether or not someone has been sexually harassed depends on what the supposed victim considers reasonable behavior.”

As people debated each situation, it became clear just how muddy the issue of sexual harassment is. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act states that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination; Bloom defined sexual harassment as being “unwelcome sexual advances, a request for sexual favors and other physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature” that interfere with the ability of a person to do his or her job. However, Bloom said the interpretation of specific instances as “harassment” remains at the discretion of the companies themselves and is dependent upon the laws of the states the companies reside in.

Bloom offered guidelines for what a person should do if he or she believes her or she is being harassed, including assessing the situation, taking direct action, documenting the problem, reporting continued inappropriate behavior and mobilizing allies when appropriate. But these suggestions seem to mainly operate within the sphere of a company that has a human resources department; as many people in the session pointed out, freelancers may not have access to the power of the human resources department, a source could be the harasser, or the harassment could occur out of the office, such as at a conference. It was unclear the chain of command people should go through to seek help in these science journalism-specific situations.

Alexandra Branscombe, a public information intern at the American Geophysical Union, was surprised at the lack of resources science writers have to combat these situations, but believes part of the solution is identifying where the disparities lie.

“What surprised me was how much nuance there is in science writing, journalism and especially freelancing, with what your claims can be for a sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior, what kind of grounds you have to stand on and who your allies are . . .” Branscombe said. “It’s so case-dependent that it’s kind of intimidating. I was surprised about the lack of resources there are to protect people in these situations.”

Freelancer Matthew Francis echoed this sentiment, saying that because of how “professionally diverse” the community is, it may be difficult to find a blanket solution that covers everyone. However, he thought a freelancer’s union or organization might help.

“If you were a reporter and you were harassed by a professor at a conference, then having somebody with a bit of clout to call up that university’s ombudsman’s office and file a formal complaint, that can mean a lot, just to know somebody’s got your back . . . It wouldn’t solve all problems, but it seems like if we don’t have companies that are sticking up for us, we need to stick up for ourselves,” Francis said.

Some of the other suggestions for rectifying the situation included remaining vigilant as allies and advocates and calling out sexual harassment when it occurs, as well as making the sexual harassment policies of each media organization easier to find online.

“It would be helpful if, as editors, we made sure there is language in our contracts for the expectations of people who are representing us in the field, and also how we expect those people to be treated during the reporting process,” Jennifer Bogo, executive editor of Popular Science, said.

She added that she hoped staffers and freelancers would come to her, as a representative of her organization, if sexual harassment did occur, whether out in the field or within the workplace.

“It would be helpful to bring some of those policies up into the light so we know what the chain of response is and what our expectations are,” Bogo said.

Clearly, the science writing community has a long way to go in order to stamp out sexual harassment, but the Women In Science Writing Solutions Summit allowed the community to understand the gaps in protection against sexual harassment and discuss solutions that will help everyone, from freelancers to staffers, feel safe as they write about science.